June 21 2017 03:34 PM

East Lansing Jazz Festival breaks out a two-level box of bon-bons

By the time you pick out the highlights of this weekend’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, all that’s left in the box are crinkly bits of paper.

The festival’s artistic director, bassist Rodney Whitaker, keeps on diversifying the mix of local legends, Michigan mainstays and international stars, stuffing two stages with juicy jazz, blues and R&B.

Friday, the most significant figure in the local jazz scene, Whitaker himself, will appear with his quintet at 8:30, followed by phenomenal young Cuban drummer, bandleader and educator Dafnis Prieto and his sextet at 10.

Saturday’s big event is an Avengers-style assemblage of top musicians from festivals past, with saxophonist Tim Warfield, guitarist Fareed Haque, B-3 organist Tony Monaco, trombonist Michael Dease and drummer Randy Gelispie at 8 p.m.

Straight ahead is only one of many directions the music will take. On the Ann Street Plaza stage, smooth jazz maestro Phil Denny performs at 8:30 Friday, followed by nationally charting Detroit blues-soul group Laura Rain & the Caesars. The R&B/soul/gospel group 496 West takes the same stage at 8:30 Saturday, followed by vocalist Twyla Birdsong at 10 p.m.

The festival is packed with local favorites of many flavors, including Mike Eyia’s Latin supergourp Orquesta Ritmo, Grupo Aye from Grand Rapids, singer Ramona Collins and guitarist Elden Kelly, along with several bands manned by MSU students and alumni.

The Kozmic Picnik, the festival’s three-year-old walk on the wild side, boasts a bolder and bigger slate than ever. Saturday afternoon, beginning at noon, a slate of three avant-garde jazz groups curated by Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House perform in the jagged shadow of MSU’s Broad Art Museum, culminating in the powerhouse duo of percussionist Kahil El’Zabar and saxophonist David Murray.

To choose from this decadent platter is difficult, but City Pulse writer Lawrence Cosentino picked out a couple of bon-bons to sample at greater leisure in the interviews below.